As Americans, we are privileged to live in a free society where we can elect our own leaders. Democracy only works, however, when government is transparent and open about its operations, so that the people can vote based on good information.
When I ran for governor eight years ago, I promised to be open and transparent. It is an easy promise to make as a candidate, but it takes real work to carry out once in office. Looking back today, I am proud of the progress we have made.
Shortly after taking office, I changed state policies to make more economic development information public, including invitation lists for the Governor’s Hunt. Gov. Rounds had created open.sd.gov as a state portal for financial information, and we added even more information to that site.
The following year, the attorney general and I convened an Open Government Task Force to reevaluate state laws. Gov. Rounds had signed legislation creating a “presumption of openness” in state records, and in the years that followed, we found ways to provide even more information. I was pleased to sign several pieces of legislation from that task force.
Of course, open government is about much more than the law. A meeting can be open, but if you can’t get there, or you can’t find out what happened, it isn’t open to you. A record can be public, but if you can’t find it, it isn’t open to you.
Much of my emphasis over these past years hasn’t been to change the law – it has been to take meetings and records which are legally open, and make them open to the public.
How have we done that? We have made open.sd.gov better than ever before. We have made it a central portal for information about state government, and we have linked from it to other state government sites.
At the suggestion of a newspaper reporter, we created rules.sd.gov. For the last 20 years, our state Legislature has had an excellent, easy-to-use website to follow the Legislature and track legislation. There had been no similar system to track proposed administrative rules, and so we created one.
At my request, we also created a central portal for boards and commissions. I found, personally, that it was sometimes difficult to find basic information about state boards and commissions. When are they meeting? Where are their minutes? Who is on the board? So in 2015, we created the boards and commissions portal. This is a central portal for all state boards and commissions. You can find meeting dates, minutes, and membership information. You can also find their board packets and financial statements. In 2017, I proposed legislation that makes use of this online portal mandatory for boards and commissions, under the law. I want to be sure that, even when I leave office, boards continue to make their information accessible.
Another aspect of that portal is internet streaming of meetings. I was very pleased that public broadcasting launched SD.net, which works hand-in-hand with the portal and makes streamed meetings easy to find.
I know members of the media appreciate the ability to cover these meetings through streaming, and it makes it easier for the public and the press to listen to these open meetings. Openness isn’t always easy. Sometimes other values come into play – privacy of individuals, security, law enforcement, or government efficiency are all competing values.
Sometimes the government and the news media can disagree about how to balance these interests. For that reason, I was particularly honored earlier this year to accept the “Eagle Award” from the South Dakota Newspaper Association on behalf of the many state employees who have worked to make these improvements.
The work still isn’t done. It will never be done. Gov. Rounds made important improvements and I’ve tried to build upon them. I know Governor-elect Noem has ideas for doing even more. As South Dakotans, we can all be proud that we are having the right conversation and heading in the right direction.